So this weekend saw the debut of the long-awaited, long-in-development-hell television series based on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher.
It ain’t bad.
It ain’t Preacher.
But it ain’t bad.
I guess I should explain what I mean by that. Taken in its own right, as its own thing, Preacher on the TeeVee (which is what I’m going to call it for the purposes of this review) is pretty good television. It’s over-the-top and funny, with a debut episode that features a couple of well-executed and humorously brutal action sequences. If it were an original work, appearing for the first time on my TV screen, I might like it quite a bit. But it’s not appearing for the first time on my TV screen. It’s an adaptation of a funnybook series that I like quite a bit. And as an adaptation, it’s lacking in some pretty fundamental ways.
All of which leaves me in a bit of a quandary. Do I try to be fair to the show, and let it stand on its own? Or do I compare it to the book it’s ostensibly adapting, and point out its shortcomings as an adaptation? Neither approach seems entirely satisfying to me, so of course (being nothing if not fair.. and stubborn… and over-complicated…) I’m going to do both.
It might be best, I think, if I start off critiquing it as an adaptation. That’ll let me get a few things off my chest, so maybe I’ll be more charitable later…
First things first, for those not familiar: Preacher is the story of Jesse Custer, a man imbued with the Word of God, the power to compel others to do what he says. It’s also the story of how he comes by that power, and why the forces of Heaven aren’t real happy about it. I won’t spoil that reason for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but let’s just say that, once Jesse learns what’s really going on, he decides to go looking for God, and make that sumbitch face up to his crimes. The story that comes out of that decision is an epic, a modern-day Western filled to bursting (often literally) with sex, violence, myth, memorable characters, and through it all a pitch-black sense of humor balanced against an unwavering sense of love, friendship, and, yes, morality.
The makers of Preacher on the TeeVee, while following that basic story, have chosen to tell it in a different way. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I don’t expect all adaptations to be as loyal to the source as, say, the Sin City movie. And, honestly… The early issues of Preacher are a little clumsy in places. There are, frankly, better ways to get into the story, and the show’s decision to start while Jesse Custer is still trying to be a preacher, rather than Garth Ennis’ decision to start on his very last day in that job, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Some of what comes of that change, however, ripples out to change other things. And it’s those things that give me pause.
Jesse himself may be the best example of that. In Preacher, Jesse Custer represents a very specific, and kind of old-fashioned, type of masculinity. While he’s hardly without conflict, he is comfortable in his own skin. He keeps himself to himself. He’s possessed of an essential decency, but he’s not a jerk about it. And while he’s not the type to start a fight, you probably don’t want to cross him, either. In Preacher on the TeeVee, meanwhile, Jesse a much more modern type of man. He’s heavily conflicted and not at all comfortable with himself. He doesn’t strike me as essentially decent. Instead, he’s a bad man trying to be good. Or maybe a good man with a mean streak. It’s too soon to say for sure. But either way, he’s different. Softer. Weaker. Doesn’t have as much starch in him. And that mean streak… It cuts against the whole point of the character. And that’s not good adaptation.
The same can be said for his love interest, Tulip O’Hare. In Preacher, Tulip has turned to a life of crime since Jesse last saw her, but she’s still refreshingly normal. She’s distinguished, in fact, by being written like a real flesh and blood person in a sea of increasingly bizarre caricatures. But Preacher on the TeeVee Tulip is a caricature herself. She is, essentially, a very friendly psychopath, broadly-played and reveling in violence. I’ve seen this change lauded as empowering for the character, but I don’t think Tulip really needed any empowering. She’s already a strong character. I don’t think making her more obvious and incredibly violent really improves anything. And much like TeeVee Jesse, her attitude cuts against the book’s core themes. Preacher is driven by a strong sense of right and wrong, and getting off on violence generally puts you on the side of wrong. Or at least means you’re a crazy bastard, and not to be trusted.
But speaking of crazy bastards who aren’t to be trusted… Our third core cast member, the vampire Cassidy, has thus far been translated pretty much directly. Of course, he’s the simplest, broadest character of the bunch (at least at first), and the one who’s the most recognizable as a standard character type: the reprobate friend. And this points out a problem with Preacher on the TeeVee: they’ve taken characters with complex moral and psychological make-ups, and turned them into types. Jesse’s the hero wrestling with his demons, Tulip’s the crazy girlfriend, and Cassidy, as I already said, is the hero’s reprobate buddy. They’ve dumbed things down a bit, is what I’m saying. The characters and the themes are more formulaic, more familiar. More like a dozen other things we’ve seen before.
They’ve also changed the tone. Because, in spite of giving Jesse a mean streak and making Tulip a psycho, Preacher on the TeeVee feels a good bit more tame than Preacher. I mean, even Garth Ennis doesn’t get to the really crazy shit right off the bat, so I’m not upset that nobody got their testicles eaten off by a dog in the first episode. But the show still feels entirely too safe. Too normal. When Tulip shoots a guy in her first appearance, it’s not some clean hyper-kinetic fight scene with blood spatters on the window. It’s guy-with-his-jaw-shot-off disturbing:
Such a simple image, but brutally effective. Now, that may be a makeup effect that would be hard to pull off on a TV budget. Even film effects don’t often look very convincing on that sort of thing. So I can understand why they might not have done that specific thing. But couldn’t they have done something just a little more in your face? Something that’s just the teeniest bit disturbing and transgressive? Something a little more like Preacher?
And as long as we’re talking makeup effects that don’t live up to the source material, we might as well discuss the effect that disappointed me the most: Arseface. Here’s Preacher Arseface:
Hilariously disgusting. Now here’s Preacher on the TeeVee Arseface:
In the same ballpark, but… It just doesn’t push things far enough. It’s too clean. Too safe. Almost boring in comparison.
But the tonal problems go beyond the series’ infamous what-the-fuck moments. The town of Anvil, Texas (where the show is set), is recognizably venal, but not mean-spirited to the point that it feels threatening or weird. And to really capture the Preacher tone, you need threatening and weird. You need crazy racist bastard Sheriff Root talking about how “Martian niggers” are ruining America. And instead, you get plain ol’ redneck Sheriff Root saying he can’t take action on a report of domestic violence unless the victim files a complaint.
Kinda lame in comparison.
So lame, in fact, that it causes a problem: other than an abusive scumbag, the worst people in the first episode of Preacher on the TeeVee are Our Heroes. Seriously. Tulip kills a car full of men, then shoots down a helicopter by enlisting the aid of children to build a homemade bazooka! Cassidy kills an entire plane full of people (people who were trying to kill him, but still)! And Jesse? Jesse gives some kind of stereotypical “scary bad ass” speech to the aforementioned abusive scumbag before beating him (and five or six of his friends) senseless, and breaking the guy’s arm after he’s down! This, I think, is how they’re trying to compensate for the lack of that weird and threatening atmosphere. But if they keep doing that… When the Saint of Killers shows up, I’m wondering if he’s not going to be outclassed.
And that is what I mean when I say that Preacher on the TeeVee just ain’t Preacher. It’s telling a similar story, but to different ends. The characters have the same names, but they’re different people. And the really hard edge, the demented crazy edge that made the book so much fun, has been replaced with cartoon violence. And that’s not a good substitute.
Adaptation Grade: D
But all that said…
Preacher on the TeeVee, taken as its own thing, completely separate from its source material, isn’t bad at all. It’s funny, the actors are charming, and, though they may have dumbed down some of the core concepts, the writing itself is often quite smart. The dialogue never falls flat, and (most importantly for me) they seem content to let the story tell itself at its own pace, trusting the audience to follow along without explaining every little detail every step of the way. Even if I didn’t know Cassidy was a vampire going in, for instance, I’d have figured it out by the end of his first scene. And I don’t think anyone actually says the word “vampire” in the whole episode. I like that.
The humor is also pretty sharp, with the action sequences in particular playing out as pitch-black farce. It’s a different type of black humor than what you get in the book. More broad. Less painful. Which, again, takes away from the edge a proper adaptation would have gone for. But it probably still seems plenty edgy to anyone who isn’t familiar with the source material. And (again, taken as their own thing) it’s hard to complain about the action sequences themselves. They’re stylish and well-choreographed. Tulip’s fight inside the speeding car is even inventive. Good stuff.
Then there’s the thematic elements. This idea of Jesse wrestling with his demons, while more stereotypical than what we get in the book, does play to the larger religious themes inherent in the concept. We see the entity that gives Jesse the Word seek out a man of God first, then a Satanic priest, neither of whom survive the experience. Then, in Jesse, it finds someone with a little bit of both Heaven and Hell in him. Fitting, for entirely spoilery reasons I won’t go into here. But it’s an interesting avenue to explore.
So there’s plenty to like in Preacher on the TeeVee, in spite of my complaints about it as an adaptation. It’s far from perfect, but it is entertaining when taken as its own thing. It’s charmingly demented, and I want to like it. But it ain’t Preacher.
TeeVee Show Called Preacher That Ain’t Preacher Grade: B